Thursday, January 13, 2005

Spare the rod

If you have a stick, and want to beat someone with it, steer clear of Bangladesh. That team, more than any other in the world, needs nurture. They were given Test status four years ago, and are now on the verge of recording their first-ever series win. Sure, it has only come against a lowly, depleted Zimbabwe team. But, if you have only critical things to say, everyone is probably best served by silence.

That Bangladesh were given Test status in an unseemly haste, for reasons that were more political and parochial than hard cricket, is a fact most people would accept. But, having given them Test status, it's no good bashing them. They're here to stay, and they will one day, in the not too distant feature, be competitive enough to give a few Test teams a run for their money.

Taking Test status away from Bangladesh is not the solution. That will just make all the effort that has gone into project Bangladesh thus far - and it's a considerable amount - a total waste. As Habibul Bashar told Rabeed Imam in an interview recently,
"I feel deeply frustrated when I hear such things. What I have learned in Test cricket is that if we do not play at this level, we will never improve. If we stay at a lower level, we will remain stuck there. The difference in standard between Test nations and associate members is huge. If we play them, we will never again be able to compete at this level; we will never learn anything. On the other hand, if we stay here, I'm absolutely sure that in a couple of years we will have a settled position in Test cricket"

And Bashar is dead right. More importantly, the sponsorship will dry up instantly, and cricket will suffer deeply in Bangladesh. Bashar makes this point as well:
"Besides, when you play at the top level, sponsorship and patronisation come easy, which is very important for the development of cricket in Bangladesh. Cricket is huge here. Every youngster wants to play the game. If we are not playing Tests, they will lose interest as there will be no role models, which will mean the death of the sport."

If you've been to Bangladesh, and I have, to cover India's tour, you will see the potential for cricket in the country. Cricket is not merely about producing teams that can stretch Australia. It is also about fans packing the stadium. It is also about sponsors keen to support the game. It is about a large population deriving joy from 13 people fiddling with a leather sphere out in the middle. And, from that point of view, Bangladesh has everything going for it, as a Test-playing nation.

When Mohammad Ashraful scopred that audacious 158 not out against India at Chittagong, the boost it gave the team was incredible. Suddenly, there was belief, that they could take on the best in the world. But, Wasim Akram, an astute observer of the game, had a word of caution for them. "Forget about Ashraful's 100. That's over. You can't rest on that for next year," he advised one of the Bangladeshi cricketers. And Akram knows a thing or two about the psyche of subcontinent cricketers.

Thankfully, Bangladesh have Dav Whatmore at the helm of affairs. He wasn't over the moon at Bangladesh's Test win. "We've done well against this opposition. But I have my feet on the ground. We have to make sure we win the series next week," he told Not Cricinfo, in response to a congratulatory email. Then at least, some of the people calling for Bangladesh to be shunted to a lower rung, will hold their fire for a few days.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Warne 106,500, Tendulkar 7,600, Sehwag 1600, Kumble 685

The World Cricket Tsunami Appeal rattled in the moolah like no other cricket charity game has. One of the interesting sidelights was the auction of the shorts players wore during the game. Shane Warne's jersey, unbelievably, rang in a whopping Au$ 140,000 (US$ 106,500 approx). Compare that with, say, Sachin Tendulkar's shirt, which only attracted bids of about Au$ 10,000 (US$ 7600 approx). Is this just a representation of the purchasing power of the Asian market when compared to the West? Or is it that Indians, even those that are incredibly wealthy, don't have a culture of spending on things like memorabilia?

If the jersey auction was an embarrassment, then the auction organised back home in India was downright humiliating. The bat Virender Sehwag used to score 309 against Pakistan at Multan, the highest-ever score by an Indian in Tests, was sold for a mere Rs. 70,000 (US$ 1600 approx), and amazingly, the t-shirt Kumble wore when picking up his 434th Test wicket, to draw level with Kapil Dev at the top of the Indian heap, fetched just Rs. 30,000 (US$ 685 approx).

Could it be that this is because our heroes seem too distant to us in India? Warne was all over the MCG during the tsunami appeal match, signing autographs, talking to the crowd, waving to them, playing games with them. In general, getting the crowd into the game. Kumble, on the other hand, was dead serious about going about his business. Poker-faced, quiet, and deeply committed to cricket, it is not natural for Kumble to indulge in any sort of tomfoolery. Did this, in some way, contribute to fans not willing to fork out as much, even for a good cause, whenn Kumble's record-sealing t-shirt came under the hammer?

Or perhaps it is merely that the match was played in Australia, and attracted mostly local patronage even on an Internet auction. We'll just have to wait for the return charity game, to be held in Asia, to get closer to the answer.

Monday, January 10, 2005

14.6 million, but could have been more?

The cricket world for once stood up together as one and made its presence felt at a time when it mattered. More than 14.6 million Australian dollars were generated from the Rest of the World v Asia XI one-day match in Melbourne. Call me churlish for saying so, but if the ICC hadn't granted this match official ODI status, that number would have been higher.

After racking up 344, the ICC World XI were well and truly home. Especially when Asia XI wickets tumbled in the top order, leaving them with an impossible run-rate to score at. At this stage, had it not been an official ODI, the bowlers would have taken it easy. Some part-time dobbers would have come on and served up dollies so the match at least looked competitive. Remember, each six hit made the charity richer by Au$ 50,000 thanks to Toyota, and every run scored fetched Au$1000 courtesy 3G the mobile phone company.

So, if this was not an official ODI, the likes of Stephen Fleming and Ricky Ponting could have tossed a few up and let Asia XI closer to 344. Hypothetically, if Asia XI had scored 320, with four more sixes (how apt it would have been to see Muttiah Muralitharan carve one of those?) the fund would be richer by Au$ 288,000!

Now that is a bundle of cash that just went abegging.

Why do our heroes do this to themselves?

If you love cricket, you almost certainly love cricketers as well. There’s something about the men (and occasionally women) who play the game that draws you to them. Cricket, more than any other sport, forms a protective umbrella around the players that made the game. Nowhere do you see former sportsmen accommodated – in coaching roles, administrative posts, media spots – as cricket. But, in recent times, this has eroded the respect fans would normally have for players.

Which Indian now remembers Krish Srikkanth for his fearless hitting? Who remembers the manner in which he took on great fast bowlers – men no lesser than Andy Roberts and company – and hooked with only a visorless helmet for protection? Who remembers the startling batting at the top of the order? Who remembers him top-scoring in the final of the World Cup in 1983 when India won? Sadly, he is now remembered for his outrageous, often ill-timed but well-intentioned comments in front of the mike in one TV show or the other.

But, it’s not just the hard-hitting Srikkanths who have come out worse for wear through media work. Anyone who has met Bobby Simpson, as I have in his frequent visits to the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai, will tell you he is a charming man. Full of the old values and anecdotes that you associate with a well-thumbed cricket book you might find in a library, Simpson is a man you can spend hours listening to. His views – especially on illegal bowling actions, a subject he’s an expert on, having served on several panels to deal with this thorny issue – have always been accepted with some manner of reverence.

But, recently, Simpson has done himself no good with the columns he has written. Not weeks ago, he wrote a piece panning Dennis Lillee for the dearth of quality swing bowlers in Australia. Lillee, who was fast-bowling consultant to the academy in Australia, did not swing the ball, contented Simpson. Anyone who has seen footage of Lillee bowl knows this is not true. Lillee certainly had the pace, bounce and mental strength to get rid of batsmen even without swinging the ball, but as one of Lillee’s contemporaries put it, “Simmo must have had an old black and white TV then, and had trouble spotting the ball, for Dennis took half his wickets with away-swingers.”

But, if having a go at one of the finest fast bowlers ever to grace the game was not enough, Simpson went one better in his latest column. Charged with the task of picking an all-time Australian Test XI, he struggled, meandered, explained, and finally picked himself as one of the opening batsmen. Now, there’s no doubting that Simpson was one of the great opening batsmen Australia has produced, but it’s beyond the scope of this piece to debate the merit of Simpson’s selection. The manner in which he laboured to justify his selection left you shaking your head and feeling just a little sad. No former great – who has proven himself as a cricketer and coach – should do this to himself.

Yet, they routinely do, and the cricket world is poorer for it.